The Russia-Ukraine war has reached the dangerous threshold of nuclear escalation but it is not the only conflict that Europe is reeling under. Tensions are stoked in at least two other major flashpoints in the Balkans and the Caucasus as the world experiences tumultuous frenzy with great power politics being played out dangerously in Ukraine. These two flashpoints merit attention to prepare the world in case of further contingencies. What binds the Western Balkans to the Caucasus, among other issues, is an extremely challenging legacy of the past.
Long before the conflict in Ukraine escalated into a full-scale war by Russia, tensions existed in the Western Balkans, as did Russia’s interest in the region that has remained a troubled area within Europe, to be used as a threat, whenever deemed fit for Moscow’s interests. On the part of Europe, Balkans has been an under-examined dimension of European security, now back in priority as Ukraine-ripples reach other grey zones where recent memories of bloodiest conflicts have not receded.
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Parallel processes on opposite sides of the Black Sea
On the other side of Black Sea, sandwiched between Turkey and Russia, lies the region of Caucasus with three European Caucasian countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan are also undergoing renewed conflict after a 44-day-long and bloody war in 2020 over Nagorno-Karabakh, a conflict that famously crafted the imagery of modern warfare in terms of drones and loiter munitions deployment.
Like in the Balkans, the warring sides in Caucasus too are supported by rival camps. India, in its outreach to the region, has emerged as a stakeholder by sending Pinaka rockets and other ammunition to Armenia a second time after 2020.
The Balkans is an interesting region because, just like Ukraine, it touches upon the sensitive issue of NATO expansion despite strong opposition by Serbia, backed by Russia. While Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia are already members of NATO, Bosnia Herzegovina (with its precarious ethnic balancing) and Kosovo are not.
And just like Russia refuses to accept Ukraine as a sovereign State, creating murky spaces for proxy wars between great powers, Serbia refuses to accede legitimacy to Kosovo as an independent State. The situation has been vulnerable to aiding conflict between rival camps.
Russia’s destabilisation strategy: Baltics to the Balkans
As in the Baltics, Russia, along with its ally Serbia, has been at the forefront of destabilising the western Balkans as well. Until a few years ago, the involvement of the Russian secret service in a failed coup in Montenegro was confirmed. This was at a time when Montenegro was concluding the procedures for NATO membership, which was certainly against Russian interests. Further, close relations that the representative of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, cultivated with President Vladimir Putin provided more clarity on Russia’s motives and interests in this part of Europe. Reinforcing tense relations between Kosovo and Serbia turns out to be a well-thought-out strategy of the Russian Federation to cement its influence in the region.
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The Balkan conundrum
Serbia has been mired in a long-drawn conflict with Kosovo, its breakaway province in the south that unilaterally declared independence in 2008. This came after violent ethnic cleansing and bloodbath that triggered NATO’s intervention in the late 1990s.
The root of the problem is that ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo’s north do not recognise Pristina’s authority to impose rules and regulations. Serbia upholds Kosovo as its own territory, politically and culturally, because the latter is home to a number of medieval Serb Orthodox Christian monasteries. The Serb position is supported by Russia, China, and some European countries. The majority population living in Kosovo are ethnic Albanians who are majorly Muslims. They accuse Serbia of occupation and repression. Despite years of negotiation by the international community and the European Union, the deadlock over Kosovo’s independence has kept tensions between both sides simmering, which has prevented full stabilisation of the Balkan region. Adding fuel to the fire has been the presence of NATO, which maintains peace between both sides with about 5,000 troops on the ground in Kosovo, but is keen to intervene lest “stability is jeopardised”. This statement takes on a deeper hue considering that Serbia started military exercises near the border with Kosovo just as mediation efforts intensified. Even though an interim deal has been reached a few days ago, it has no lasting impact or directives to solve the frequent flares between the arch rivals.
The Ukraine war has manifested an isolated Russia in Europe. Russian foreign minister Sergi Lavrov was caught by embarrassment in June when Serbia’s surrounding neighbours, all NATO members, closed their airspaces, forcing him to cancel the visit to Belgrade. It was a huge fiasco and diplomatic scandal for Serbia. While Serbia refuses to join the sanctions regime, it has rejected the Russian referenda results upholding the territorial unity of Ukraine.
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Armenia’s miscalculations about its military stature and Russian backing made it lose the war in 2020. Despite being a member of the Russia-led security alliance, Armenia did not get the active support it expected from Russia, while the military preparedness of Azerbaijan was ramped up by imported weapons from Europe, Israel and Turkey. To Armenia’s renewed frustration, while its pleas to the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to intervene during the 2020 war and again the following year went unheeded, early this year, the CSTO nonchalantly planned the deployment of Armenian troops as part of the mission to quell unrest in Kazakstan.
Monitored by Russian ‘peacekeepers’ since 2020, any conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is seen by Russia as challenging its influence in the region. But Armenia may not be happy with Russia playing ‘all sides’ in the Caucasus, especially when the latter sells arms to Azerbaijan as well. Recent analysis has called out Armenia’s tilt toward NATO and alleged covert support to Ukraine despite being a formal treaty ally of Russia. Internationalisation of the conflict is in Armenia’s interest and a priority too because Russia failed to provide any closure to its ally yet again when violence resumed on 9 September 2022.
The ground in the Caucasus is fertile for further internationalisation of the conflict and a likely stepping up of NATO’s presence in the region. It might also witness further militarisation by Russia to hold on to its weaning influence, thereby raising stakes in the already tense environment.
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While India is at the forefront of de-escalation and diplomacy in both Ukraine and the Balkans, New Delhi’s approach to the conflict in the Caucasus has been more ‘realist’. Both Armenia and India have a mutual concern about the emerging axis between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan since 2020. India has recently inked a deal with Armenia to send indigenous Pinaka rocket launchers and other ammunition. It is not the first time that Armenia has imported ammunition from India. In 2020, India sold 4 Swathi Weapon Locating Radars to Armenia worth Rs 350 crore.
Nuance is key in analysing this region of the world where positions taken are not black and white for any player, except the ones directly involved in the war. European players and global actors are meandering a maze of renewed tensions over national interests, ethnic identities and great power confrontation where narratives merge and overlap. What remains is the seething discomfort of another impending conflict.
The writer is an Associate Fellow, Europe and Eurasia Center, at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. She tweets @swasrao. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)